Photo by Courtney Carmody
The Origins of a Fear
I was the recipient of some bullying as a skinny young kid. One older boy in my neighborhood entertained himself with me occasionally by trapping me in our garage and threatening to beat me up if I tried to get out. Later, tougher kids would chase me home from school, I wasn’t actually hurt very much, but I became afraid of being beat up.
Even though I became an athlete in junior high school, the fear of being beat up persisted. One day on the playground Clayton, our star athlete, grabbed me from behind and held me captive for a few minutes, to the amusement of a large crowd of boys in my class. I was humiliated, but didn’t fight or even object. I was scared. In another incident, as I walked my paper route, two of the tough guys in my class approached me a in menacing way that frightened me. One of them punched me in the face, sending me to the icy sidewalk, where I stayed, docile, looking up at their sneering faces, until they went on down the street.
In high school I took a beating that required medical repair. By then I was on the football and wrestling teams and not at all afraid of being hurt in either sport, feeling safe within the protection of rules and adult oversight. But I was still stymied by my fear of physical violence that was unpredictable. Once in tenth grade wrestling practice, my wrestling partner and I rolled off the mat, crashing into Jim Royson, a senior with a well-earned reputation for sadistic attacks and fistfights he never lost. As I rolled off him, he smashed his fist into my mouth, cutting my lip, which erupted in blood. I staggered out of the room to find the absent coach, hoping to find some justice, no doubt. But Coach Shearer seemed as intimidated by my abuser as I was, and merely sent me off to find a doctor.
I walked the mile to the doctor’s office, got sewn up with a half-dozen stitches, and slumped, home in defeat. When I told my usually sympathetic and peaceful mother what had happened, she asked, “What did you do about it?” I told her that I had done nothing. She made no comment, but didn’t speak to me for the next two days, a message about my cowardice that I would not forget for decades after that.
Many years later, I read Carlos Castaneda’s first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, and got this perspective on fear:
- Fear is the first major enemy of learning that we face.
- Most people never defeat this enemy, “Fear! A terrible enemy—treacherous, and difficult to overcome …concealed at every turn of the way, prowling, waiting.”
- Someone defeated by fear becomes either a bully or a harmless, defeated, timid person.
- To overcome fear, you must not run away, but instead confront and defy every fear.
- After a prolonged battle, fear will retreat and one joyful day you will realize that you have vanquished fear and will never be afraid again.
- Now a sharp clarity of mind emerges, and, fearless, you will be a buoyant warrior the rest of your life, even if you don’t take the next step in learning.
I immediately wrote down my remaining fears, and there it was: at forty, I was still afraid of being beat up! I was the CEO of an organization, with no enemies who wanted to do me harm, in a safe Midwestern town with little violent crime. I hated to realize that I still suffered from the fear of physical violence. The fear surfaced only periodically, but it was always there like a chronic, low-grade flu. I wanted to be a buoyant warrior, so, fully afraid, I made an unequivocal commitment to defeating fear.
Maybe confronting our fears always seems bizarre in some way. After all, others around us don’t seem to be doing much about their fears, apparently accepting them as a normal part of human consciousness. And it certainly feels counterintuitive to go looking for what you’re very frightened to confront.
As bizarre as it seemed to me at the time, I started looking for trouble. How else to confront the fear of physical violence but to go in search of it? It seemed crazy, of course, and the last thing I really wanted to do. Nevertheless, I started hanging out in my neighborhood bars on weekend nights, looking for tough guys who liked to hurt other people. I know, I know. Do you have a better idea?
Weeks of bar hopping produced no opportunities. There were plenty of rough looking men in the bars, and my absurd idea was to provoke them by starring at them. But nobody seemed offended by my crude tactic. Nevertheless, becoming fearless, if that was possible, was my top commitment. Literally, my first thought every day upon awakening was about getting over the fear of physical violence, and my last thought before sleep was my unfinished business. I saw that my fears were no longer tolerable. I hated them and was willing to risk just about anything to end them.
Then one summer night my friends and I gathered at a restaurant and bar. Kay, one of my friends, and I went outside for a smoke. Big boulders were part of the landscaping facing the bar entrance, and some people were sitting on them. Kay and I slid up on a couple of boulders and lit up. There was a group of men standing around smoking and talking nearby.
Suddenly, a burly and very angry young man burst out of the bar entrance dragging a woman by her neck and hair. Struggling to get free, she was screaming, “Help me! Help me!”
I saw the implications of this moment instantly. I had been thinking about an opportunity like this for months and saw with dread that the moment of opportunity had arrived. I didn’t move. I didn’t want to enter this battle. I saw everything in slow motion. The woman was screaming as the man dragged her past us toward the parking lot. I hoped that the group of three men standing nearby would make a move, but I saw that they were paralyzed with fear, immobile.
Kay slid off the rock, Kay, at 85 pounds, was about to act, and I knew I couldn’t leave this to her; I had to make my move. I hopped off the boulder, telling Kay to go get help. The woman was sobbing, dragging her feet, trying to wrestle out of his fierce grip, but the young man pulled her relentlessly forward, now a few yards in front of me. As I moved off the rock toward them, he turned fiercely toward me and said, “Stay where you are, you s.. of a b….!”
I honestly cannot remember taking those next few steps toward the couple. And then I was between them. Both of their faces were close to mine as I said, “Everything will be all right. Everything will be ok.”
The woman, his wife it turned out, darted away to the safety of some people who encircled her. The young man seemed to deflate, quiet now, not knowing what to do next. I stood with him for a while. It was over.
My New Fearless Life
As Castaneda had predicted, the next day was a joyous day. I felt unafraid. I was buoyant. I didn’t want to declare victory prematurely so I waited for months to see if I had actually erased my fear. But something had shifted. I was no longer afraid and would never experience the fear of physical violence again.
My fearless life doesn’t mean that I don’t notice physical danger. I do. Being fearless is a state of consciousness in which fear does not make decisions. The physical reactions to danger are experienced in our bodies. We can’t help it—it’s visceral. But what happens in the next moment is what counts. Fearless, I retain my clarity, listen to my body’s signals, and then make a decision that will best meet the challenge at hand. Fearless, I don’t shrink in the face of a formidable challenge: I stand my ground with a warrior’s advantage of clarity.
Some Good News About Our Fears
In my coaching with hundreds of leaders, I discovered that many of them were blocked by fears of various sorts—the fear of being disrespected by employees, the fear of failing as leaders of the enterprise, or the fear of taking risks that needed to be taken. Once their fears surfaced in our coaching dialogue, I discovered something interesting. Leaders who were able to talk about their specific fears didn’t have more than one or two fears left to confront. They had developed and matured as leaders: there wasn’t a great deal left to conquer.
That’s the good news. If you can talk pretty openly about your fears to a trusted ally, you have only a fear or two left to erase. People with lots of fears, I learned, can’t talk about them. It’s too scary.
Still, because they had rarely talked about their fears before, facing the remaining one or two fears rattled these leaders, who only cautiously allowed a look into their secret vulnerabilities. Some were unable or unwilling to address those fears, unfortunately locking themselves into a limited future. They would always be too timid in their leadership role and in the other arenas of their life.
Others, however, went looking for trouble, hopped off the rock and became buoyant warriors.